Rand Paul has made criminal justice reform an important bullet on his political to-do list. He was one of the few white political leaders to speak out forcefully during last summer’s contentious debates around the subject after several unarmed black men and boys were killed during encounters with police officers. He has co-sponsored legislation in Congress to reform mandatory sentencing laws and to change policies that permanently stigmatize nonviolent juvenile offenders, which have disproportionately affected African Americans.
During his announcement speech on Tuesday, Paul again raised the issue of fairness in the criminal justice system. Video elements and speaker intros ahead of his address zeroed in on his efforts to reach out to voters in urban areas and communities of color.
That focus has brought Paul attention -- even some bipartisan praise. It's also an issue that, despite having caught on in some conservative circles, is unlikely to bring him much traction in the Republican primary.
The question facing the newly-minted candidate is how he now reconciles those two realities.
Polls consistently show a gaping gulf between black and white voters over whether there is racial bias in the criminal justice system. Whites believe that blacks and whites are treated the same; black respondents overwhelmingly disagree. White Republicans see even less of a problem than white Democrats.
After years of leading the push for tough policing tactics and harsh sentencing, some conservative politicians and activists have joined the criminal justice reform movement. Alarmed at the costs of one of the world's largest prison systems, they are calling for loosening sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders and changing policies that make it more difficult for people to re-enter society after they've served their time. The Koch Brothers recently partnered with several liberal groups, including the Center for American Progress, to create a criminal justice reform initiative called the Coalition for Public Safety.
Many of the GOP presidential hopefuls have talked about the need to reduce the prison population, but few have spoken out as consistently on the issue as Paul, who attributes some of his activism on the issue to his libertarian leanings.